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Tony Hancock

Biography published in 1978 (1983 paperback reprint shown)
Born Anthony John Hancock
12 May 1924(1924-05-12)
Hall Green, Birmingham, England
Died 24 June 1968 (aged 44)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Cause of death Suicide
Resting place Saint Dunstan's Church, Cranford Park, London
Nationality British
Occupation Comedy actor
Spouse(s) Cicely J. E. Romanis (1950–1965 div)
Freda (Freddie) Ross (Dec 1965–1968 div)
Parents John Hancock & Lucie Lilian Sennett

Anthony John "Tony" Hancock (12 May 1924 – 24 June 1968) was a British actor and comedian.

Contents

Early life and career

Hancock was born in Southam Road, Hall Green, Birmingham, England,[1] but from the age of three was brought up in Bournemouth, where his father, John Hancock, who ran the Railway Hotel in Holdenhurst Road, worked as a comedian and entertainer.

After his father's death in 1934, Tony and his brothers lived with their mother and stepfather at a small hotel then called The Durlston Court (now renamed The Quality Hotel). He attended Durlston Court Preparatory School, a boarding school at Durlston in Swanage (moved during World War II and now located in Barton-on-Sea, Hampshire[2]) and Bradfield College in Reading, Berkshire, but left school at the age of fifteen.

In 1942, during World War II, Hancock joined the RAF Regiment. Following a failed audition for the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA), he ended up on The Ralph Reader Gang Show. After the war, he returned to the stage and eventually worked as resident comedian at the Windmill Theatre, home to many comedians and actors of the period[3] and worked on radio shows such as Workers' Playtime and Variety Bandbox.

In 1951, Hancock joined the cast of Educating Archie, where he played the tutor and foil to the nominal star, a ventriloquist's dummy. This brought him recognition and a catchphrase he used frequently in the show ("Flippin' kids!") became popular parlance. The same year, he made regular appearances on BBC Television's popular light entertainment show Kaleidoscope.

In 1954, he was given his own BBC radio show, Hancock's Half Hour.

Hancock's peak years

Working with scripts from Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, Hancock's Half Hour lasted for five years and over a hundred episodes in its radio form, and from 1956 ran concurrently with an equally successful BBC television series with the same name . The show starred Hancock as Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock, a more expansive version of Hancock himself, living in the shabby "Railway Cuttings" in East Cheam. Most episodes portrayed his everyday life as a struggling comedian with aspirations toward straight acting. Some episodes, however, changed this to show him as being a successful actor and/or comedian, or occasionally as having a different career completely (notably episodes where he is portrayed as a struggling barrister). Radio episodes were also prone to more surreal storylines, which would have been impractical on television, such as portraying Hancock buying a puppy that grows to be as tall as himself.

Sidney James (as Sid James was then billed) featured heavily in both the radio and TV versions, while the radio version also included regulars Bill Kerr, Kenneth Williams and over the years Moira Lister, Andrée Melly[4] and Hattie Jacques. The series rejected the variety format then dominant in British radio comedy and instead pioneered a style drawn more from everyday life: the situation comedy, with the humour coming from the characters and the circumstances in which they found themselves. Hancock also made an ITV series, The Tony Hancock Show, during this period, which ran for two series in 1956–57 either side of the first BBC television series.

During the run of his BBC radio and television series, Hancock became an enormous star in Britain. Like few others, he was able to clear the streets while families gathered together to listen to the eagerly awaited episodes. His character changed slightly over the series, but even in the earliest episodes the key facets of 'the lad himself' were evident. Later episodes were regarded as classics, even in their time. "Sunday Afternoon at Home" and "Wild Man of the Woods" were top-rating shows and were later released as an LP.

As an actor with considerable experience in films, Sid James became more important to the show when the television version began. The regular cast was reduced to just Hancock and James, allowing the humour to come from the interaction between the two men. James was the realist of the two, with a down to earth approach that would puncture Hancock's pretensions. His character would often be dishonest and exploit Hancock's apparent gullibility during the radio series, but in the television version there appeared to be a more genuine friendship between the two men.

Hancock became anxious that his work with James was turning them into a double act and the last BBC series in 1961, retitled simply Hancock, was without James. Two episodes are among his best-remembered: The Blood Donor, in which he goes to a clinic to give blood, contains famous lines such as, "A pint? Why, that's very nearly an armful!" (The doctor's response: "You won't have an empty arm... or an empty anything!") Another well-known instalment is The Radio Ham, in which Hancock plays an amateur radio enthusiast who receives a mayday call from a yachtsman in distress, but his incompetence prevents him from taking its position. Both of these programmes were later re-recorded for a commercial 1961 LP in the style of radio episodes, and these versions have been continuously available ever since.

Returning home with his wife from recording "The Bowmans" episode, a parody of The Archers, Hancock was involved in a minor car accident. He was not badly hurt, despite going through the car windscreen, but he did suffer concussion and he was unable to learn his lines for "The Blood Donor", the next show to be recorded. The result was that Hancock had to perform by reading from teleprompters (TV monitors displaying the relevant sections of script). Viewers of the programme may notice that he is not always looking at the other actors, but in another direction entirely. Hancock came to rely on teleprompters instead of learning scripts whenever he had career difficulties.

Up until the Hancock series, every British television comedy show was performed live. Hancock's highly strung personality made the demands of live broadcasts a constant worry, with the result that starting in 1958 his programmes came to be pre-recorded, a few episodes on telerecordings, then his was the first Variety show to use the new Ampex 2" video tape. At this time, it was usually only practical to shoot individual scenes, because the tape had to be edited physically rather than electronically; any serious problems would only necessitate returning to the beginning of a scene as television then faded to black between scenes. The difference this made to the flow and continuity of a show was immediately apparent.

Introspection

In early 1960, Hancock appeared on the BBC's Face to Face, a half-hour in-depth interview programme conducted by former Labour MP John Freeman. Freeman asked Hancock many searching questions about his life and work. Hancock, who deeply admired his interviewer, often appeared uncomfortable with the questions, but answered them frankly and honestly. Hancock had always been highly self-critical, and it is often argued that this interview heightened this tendency, contributing to his later difficulties. According to Roger, his brother, "It was the biggest mistake he ever made. I think it all started from that really. ...Self-analysis - that was his killer."[5]

The usual argument is that Hancock’s mixture of egotism and self-doubt led to a spiral of self-destructiveness. Cited as evidence is his gradual ostracisation of those who contributed to his success: Bill Kerr, Sid James, Kenneth Williams and Hattie Jacques, and finally his scriptwriters, Galton and Simpson. His reasoning was that to refine his craft, he had to ditch his catch-phrases and become realistic. He argued, for example, that whenever an ad-hoc character was needed, such as a policeman, it would be played by someone like Kenneth Williams, who would appear with his well known oily catchphrase 'Good evening'. Hancock believed the comedy suffered because people did not believe in the policeman, they knew it was just Williams doing a funny voice.

Hancock read huge amounts, desperately trying to find out the 'why we are here' of life. He read large numbers of philosophers, classic novels and political books. He was a supporter of the Labour Party, and admired Michael Foot above any other politician.

The break with Galton and Simpson

Hancock starred in the 1960 film The Rebel (released as Call Me Genius in the US) where he played the role of an office worker-turned-artist who finds himself successful after a move to Paris, but only as the result of mistaken identity. Although a success in Britain the film was not well received in the United States; owing to a conflict with a contemporary television series, the film had to be renamed and the new title inflamed American critics. Bosley Crowther in The New York Times thought Hancock "even less comical" than Norman Wisdom.[6]

His break with Galton and Simpson took place at a meeting held in October 1961, where he also broke with his long-term agent Beryl Vertue. During the previous six months the writers had developed without payment three scripts for Hancock's second starring film vehicle in consultation with the comedian. Worried that the projects were wrong for him, the first two had been abandoned incomplete; the third was written to completion at the writers' insistence, only for Hancock to reject it. Hancock is thought not to have read any of the screenplays. The result of the break was that Hancock chose to separately develop something previously discussed and the writers were ultimately commissioned to write a Comedy Playhouse series for the BBC, one of which, "The Offer", emerged as the pilot for Steptoe and Son, played by two straight actors, Wilfrid Brambell and Harry H. Corbett. To write that "something previously discussed", which became The Punch and Judy Man, Hancock hired writer Philip Oakes, who moved in with the comedian to co-write the screenplay.

In The Punch and Judy Man (1962), Hancock played a struggling seaside entertainer who dreams of a better life; after Billie Whitelaw withdrew, Sylvia Syms played his nagging social climber of a wife, and John Le Mesurier a sand sculptor. The depth to which the character played by Hancock had merged with that of the actor is clear in the film. When Hancock first read the scene, he looked at Phillip Oakes, and his only comment was "You bastard..." Hancock knew that the film was going to be about him, and the film owes much to Hancock’s memories of his childhood in Bournemouth.

Later years

He moved to ATV in 1962 with different writers, though Oakes, retained as an advisor, did not value their work, and the two men severed their professional relationship. The principal writer of Hancock's ATV series, Godfrey Harrison, had scripted the successful George Cole radio and television series A Life Of Bliss, and also Hancock's first regular television appearances on Fools Rush In (a segment of Kaleidoscope) more than a decade earlier. Harrison had trouble meeting deadlines, so other writers assisted, including Terry Nation.[7]

Coincidentally, the transmission of the series clashed in the early months of 1963 with Steptoe and Son written by Hancock's former writers, Galton and Simpson. Critical comparisons did not favour Hancock's series. Around 1965 Hancock made a series of TV adverts[8] for the Egg Marketing Board. Hancock starred in the adverts with Patricia Hayes which were a pastiche of the Galton and Simpson style of scripts.

Hancock continued to make regular appearances on British television until 1967, but by then alcoholism had affected his performances. After hosting two unsuccessful variety series for ABC Television The Blackpool Show and Hancock's, he was contracted to make a 13-part series called Hancock Down Under for the Seven Network of Australian television. Hancock went to Australia in March 1968, but only completed three programmes.

Death

Hancock committed suicide, by overdose, in Sydney on 24 June 1968, being found dead in his Latimer Road, Bellevue Hill apartment with an empty vodka bottle and an empty bottle of sleeping pills at his side.

In one of his suicide notes he wrote: "Things just seemed to go too wrong too many times". His ashes were brought back to the UK in an Air France hold-all by satirist Willie Rushton and in deference to his fame and knowing love of cricket, his ashes travelled back in the first class cabin.[9]

Spike Milligan commented in 1989: "Very difficult man to get on with. He used to drink excessively. You felt sorry for him. He ended up on his own. I thought, he's got rid of everybody else, he's going to get rid of himself. And he did."[10]

Personal life

In June 1950, Hancock married model Cicely Romanis,[11] after a brief courtship.

The situation became more complicated as Freddie Ross (who worked as his publicist from 1954) became more involved in his life, eventually becoming his mistress. He divorced his first wife in 1965, and married Freddie in December of that year.[12] This second marriage was short-lived. During these years Hancock was also involved with Joan Le Mesurier (née Malin), the new wife of actor John Le Mesurier, Hancock's best friend and a regular supporting character-actor from his television series. Joan was later to describe the relationship in her book Lady Don't Fall Backwards,[13] including the claim that her husband readily forgave the affair. If it had been anyone else, he said, he wouldn't have understood it, but with Tony Hancock, it made sense. In July 1966, Freddie took an overdose but was saved from dying. Arriving in Blackpool to record an edition of his variety series, Hancock was met by pressmen asking about his wife's attempted suicide. The final dissolution of the marriage took place a few days ahead of Hancock's suicide.

Cicely developed her own problems with alcohol and died from a fall in 1969, the year after the death of her former husband. Freddie Hancock survived the tragedy of her broken marriage and resumed her career as a prominent publicist and agent in the film and television industry. She has been based in New York City for many years. She was the founder of - and is a prominent member of - the East Coast chapter of BAFTA, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.

Legacy

Statue in Old Square, Corporation Street, Birmingham
Commemorative plaque at the foot of the Birmingham statue

There is a sculpture by Bruce Williams (1996) in his honour in Old Square, Corporation Street, Birmingham, a plaque on the house where he was born in Hall Green, Birmingham and a plaque on the wall of the hotel in Bournemouth where he spent some of his early life.

In a 2002 poll, BBC radio listeners voted Hancock their favourite British comedian. Commenting on this poll, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson observed that modern-day creations such as Alan Partridge and David Brent owed much of their success to mimicking dominant features of Tony Hancock's character. "The thing they've all got in common is self-delusion," they remarked in a statement issued by the BBC. "They all think they're more intelligent than everyone else, more cultured, that people don't recognise their true greatness – self-delusion in every sense. And there's nothing people like better than failure." Mary Kalemkerian, Head of Programmes for BBC 7, commented "Classic comedians such as Tony Hancock and the Goons are obviously still firm favourites with BBC radio listeners. Age doesn't seem to matter – if it's funny, it's funny." Dan Peat of the Tony Hancock Appreciation Society said of the poll: "It's fantastic news. If he was alive he would have taken it one of two ways. He would probably have made some kind of dry crack, but in truth he would have been chuffed."

In a 2005 poll to find 'The Comedian's Comedian' Hancock was voted the twelfth greatest comedian by fellow comics and 'comedy insiders'.

The last eight or so years of Tony Hancock's life was the subject of a 1991 BBC 'Screen One' television movie, called Hancock, starring Alfred Molina.

Hancock's affair with Joan Le Mesurier was also dramatised in Hancock and Joan on BBC Four and transmitted on 26 March 2008 as part of the Curse of Comedy series. Hancock was portrayed by Ken Stott and Joan by Maxine Peake.

The British singer/songwriter Harvey Andrews wrote a tribute song to Hancock in 1974 titled "Mr. Homburg Hat". [1] The title was a reference to Hancock's trademark headwear. The lyrics also alluded to his familiar jacket with its astrakhan collar: "Now there´s no more Homburg hat and astrakhan. Just empty places on the seating plan. But now they flock to say... the greatest of his day. That funny man. How sad he ran.."

The Welsh alternative rock band Manic Street Preachers named their 2007 album, Send Away the Tigers, after a phrase Hancock used to refer to "battling one's inner demons by getting drunk".[14] The album opens with lines referring to Hancock's final days: "There’s no hope in the colonies / So catch yourself a lifeline / Things have gone wrong too many times / So catch yourself a slow boat to China".[15]

Musician Pete Doherty is a fan of Hancock and entitled the first album by his band The Libertines Up the Bracket after one of Hancock's catch phrases ("Are you looking for a punch up the bracket?" / "I'll give you a punch up the bracket"). He also wrote a song called "Lady Don't Fall Backwards" in his honour. The title is the same as the book in the Hancock's Half Hour episode "The Missing Page".[16] The Libertines mention him in their song "You're My Waterloo", stating, "But I’m not Tony Hancock baby" after the line "But you’re not Judy Garland". The opening track of Up the Bracket also features an approximation of a line from Hancock's Half Hour episode "The Poetry Society": "Lead pipes are fortune made".

The Dogs D'Amour referenced Hancock in two of their songs, "Wait till I'm dead" which was taken from a line in The Rebel and closed with a spoken comment taken from the film, and "Kiss this Joint" which opens with the line "He took 'is life back in 68".

Pop Will Eat Itself mentioned Hancock in a song entitled "Eat Me Drink Me Love Me Kill Me" from their Looks or the Lifestyle album. The line states "Drain myself away like Hancock in Sydney".

Recordings

Episodes (and anthologies) from the radio series were released on vinyl LP in the 1960s, as well as several re-enactments of television scripts; an annual LP was issued of radio episodes (without the incidental music) in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Much of this material was also available on cassette in later years.

More recently, the BBC has issued CDs of the surviving seventy-four radio episodes in six box sets, one per series, with the sixth box containing several out-of-series specials. This was followed by the release of one large boxed set containing all the others in a special presentation case; while it includes no extra material, the larger box alone (without any CDs) still fetches high prices on online marketplaces like eBay, where Hancock memorabilia remains a thriving industry. There have also been VHS video releases of the BBC TV series.

So far five Region 2 DVDs have been released:

  1. Hancock's Half Hour: Volume One contains the surviving episodes of the second and third series, including a Christmas special. No episodes of the first series are known to exist.
  2. Hancock's Half Hour: Volume Two contains the five surviving episodes from the fourth series.
  3. Hancock's Half Hour: Volume Three contains all ten episodes from the fifth series.
  4. Hancock's Half Hour: Volume Four contains all ten episodes from the sixth series.
  5. Hancock: The Best Of Hancock (the first Hancock DVD released) features only five of the six episodes from the last series.
  6. Hancock: The DVD BOX SET.

Episodes of the radio series may be heard on the digital radio station BBC Radio 7 each Tuesday, for instance on-line at 19:00 London time (GMT during the winter months) at the official BBC 7 site.

Film appearances

Tributes

In April 2010, the Old Hamptonians' Amateur Dramatic Society are staging six half-hours in a show entitled Hancock, with the full support of Alan Simpson and Ray Galton, by arranmgement with Tessa Le Bars Management. For details visit www.ohads.org.uk.

Biographies

  • David Nathan and Freddie Hancock Hancock, (1969 [1996]), William Kimber, BBC Consumer Publishing, ISBN 0-563-38761-0
  • Roger Wilmut Tony Hancock: 'Artiste', A Tony Hancock Companion, 1978, Eyre Methuen - with full details of Hancock's stage, radio, TV and film appearances.
  • Edward Joffe Hancock's Last Stand: The Series That Never Was, June 1998, foreword by June Whitfield, Book Guild Ltd Publishing, ISBN 1-85776-316-5 - a fascinating insight into Hancock's final days, written by the man who found Hancock's body after his suicide.
  • Cliff Goodwin When The Wind Changed: The Life And Death Of Tony Hancock, 2000, Arrow - an extended, comprehensive biography.
  • John Fisher Tony Hancock: The Definitive Biography, 2008, Harper, ISBN 0007266774

Film biographies

  • Hancock (1991) A BBC1 'Screen One' production, starring Alfred Molina
  • Hancock and Joan (2008) A BBC Four drama, starring Ken Stott.[17]

References

  1. ^ GRO Register of Births: JUN 1924 6d 231 KINGS N. - Anthony J. Hancock, mmn = Thomas
  2. ^ http://www.durlstoncourt.co.uk/how-to-contact.htm
  3. ^ http://www.museum.tv/archives/etv/H/htmlH/hancockshal/hancockshal.htm
  4. ^ Biography of Andrée Melly
  5. ^ Quoted in John Fisher Tony Hancock: The Definitive Biography, Harper Collins, 2008, p272
  6. ^ Bosley Crowther "Screen: A British Comic:Tony Hancock Stars in 'Call Me Genius'", New York Times, 17 October 1961.
  7. ^ Kettering Magazine Issue #2 p5; Hancock At ATV
  8. ^ http://youtube.com/watch?v=JnLyqBtU_F8 TV adverts
  9. ^ http://www.tonyhancock.org.uk/ham4news1.html
  10. ^ Blind Date! The Day Van Morrison met... Spike Milligan!? August 1989 Q Magazine interview 'written down by' Paul Du Noyer.
  11. ^ GRO Register of Marriages: SEP 1950 5c 2781 KENSINGTON. Anthony J. Hancock = Cicely J. E. Romanis
  12. ^ GRO Register of Marriages: DEC 1965 5D 1664 ST MARYLEBONE - Anthony J. Hancock = Freda (Freddie) Ross
  13. ^ Lady Don't Fall Backwards by Joan Le Mesurier (ISIS, 1990, ISBN 1-85089-406-X)
  14. ^ http://www.manics.nl/site/phrases/sendawaythetigers.htm
  15. ^ http://www.manics.nl/site/phrases/thingshavegone.htm
  16. ^ NME report of Doherty's tribute
  17. ^ BBC NEWS | Entertainment | Stott takes lead in Hancock drama

External links








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